Raul Campos can pinpoint the moment that marked the end of his disco DJ days. It was New Year’s Eve 1997, the night he learned the club where he was spinning was closing down. The Gotham Club of South Gate would soon become a Denny’s, and Campos would be looking for a new line of work.
He was only 25 but already sick of the DJ scene anyway. He had been lugging his vinyl records around since his high school days in Pico Rivera, where he started playing at parties and quinceaneras like so many other Chicano kids from the vast blue-collar suburbs ringing the city. The scene had become too self-centered for this machinist’s son with a degree in urban planning from Cal Poly Pomona. DJs considered themselves stars and had started to upstage the music. Campos was old school. He still thought the dancers should be the center of attention.
“DJ culture has always been about playing for a crowd, and that’s the high,” says Campos, 35. “The DJ doesn’t make the party, the people make the party. I don’t need to be on stage when my music’s playing. As long as the vibe is rocking, that’s all that matters. If I’m doing my job right, you’ll hear the screams. That was the turn-on, to get the crowd to react the way you wanted them to.”
Today, Campos is still playing music he hopes will move the masses, but he’s doing it behind a microphone as one of the few Latino DJs on English-language radio in L.A. As host of “Nocturna,” a nightly show on KCRW, where he was groomed by respected music director Nic Harcourt, Campos has begun to amass both audience and influence, reaching an average of 80,000 listeners per week in a time slot (10 p.m. to midnight) typically dead for public radio. The shift from noisy nightclubs to an isolated broadcast studio hasn’t been easy. For starters, Campos can no longer get the high of watching his listeners react. And he had to learn to modulate his playlist, rather than blasting non-stop dance music that “didn’t translate as well as I hoped over the airwaves.”
Public broadcasting itself was a whole new culture too. By moving from multiracial nightclubs on the Eastside to English-language radio on the Westside, Campos had migrated from a scene in which Latinos were massively influential to one in which they were almost invisible, or rather inaudible.
“Out of the tens of thousands of DJs that sprang out of the Eastside, very few incorporated new music and were able to move out of the same venues they started off in,” says Gerard Meraz, a Chicano Studies instructor at Cal State Northridge whose master’s thesis was an oral history of DJ culture in L.A. “Raul was one of those guys who were able to go beyond satisfying the Eastside party needs.” From the moment he got his own show in 2000, (originally from midnight to 3 a.m.), Campos made it clear: “I don’t want to be like the token Mexican on this station.”
That meant he didn’t want to be expected to play Latin music. He remembers Harcourt’s response: “Play whatever you like, just make it your own.”
Harcourt now says “Nocturna” has evolved as a unique showcase for Latin alternative music, which gets scant play on Spanish stations, and dubs the host “really important” in that musical community.
Campos started at the station as a volunteer the year before his show was launched, answering phones and filing CDs in the library. One day, he got up the nerve to ask the boss: “What does it take to be a DJ here?”
Campos’ experience included nothing he could put on a resume. In the mid-'90s, he had worked at “Radio Clandestina,” a politically oriented pirate radio station broadcasting from Highland Park. That was “a lot of fun,” but also illegal. So Harcourt had him make some audition tapes and helped him develop his diction and the relaxed, natural radio voice that’s a signature of public radio. Harcourt says he was instantly impressed with Campos’ turntable talents, his ability to match beats and merge sounds. “Technically, I thought he was probably the best DJ on the air here,” says the host of “Morning Becomes Eclectic.” “I don’t mean just programming songs, which is kind of what I do. I’m talking about really, actually DJ. All he needed was some encouragement to develop his radio personality.”
“I’m really proud of him,” he says of his protege.
I met Campos this week for lunch at a cafe near the station. He’s not shy at all, but his aversion to the spotlight shows in his restrained, low-key manner. He sits ever so slightly hunched with his eyes often glancing out the window as he speaks. He beams when he talks about music he likes, but there’s a faint twinge of uncertainty that comes through in his voice, even on the air.
“I still consider myself the new kid on the block, even though I’ve been at the station seven years,” he says. “So I’m always like, ‘I better get with it, or I’m going to be axed.’ ”
Like any good DJ, Campos has also emerged as a producer. A CD compilation of his favorite Latin alternative tracks, “Loteria Beats Mixtape, Volume 1,” is due Tuesday on Nacional Records. It’s just a sample of his taste, featuring acts from across the globe playing diverse styles united through strains of electronica. They include the norteno accordion sampling of Mexico’s Nortec, the jet-set party vibe of the Pinker Tones and the sophisticated mix of D.C.-based DJ duo Thievery Corporation.
Far from a strictly Latin show, “Nocturna” features what the station blurb describes as “deep rhythms and urban soul with a Latin twist.” It may not be enough to satisfy hard-core Latin music lovers, but Campos has a way of coming up with gems that surprise even the most knowledgeable Latin fan. His CD contains a thrilling discovery or two, including Los Rumbers, one of Barcelona’s new flamenco fusion groups, and Choc Quib Town, a hip, Afro-Carribean group from the often overlooked Pacific coast of Colombia.
Does it make a difference that the host is Latino? Definitely, says Meraz, producer of the “Power Tools” show on Power 106, where Campos also serves as a co-host. Unlike some of his non-Latino counterparts on the air, Campos is not just dabbling in Latino sounds. “He’s coming from a different space,” says Meraz. “It’s not just, ‘Look what I found.’ It’s ‘Look what I am.’ ”
The host will even throw in the occasional romantic standard from Mexico’s Trio Los Panchos featuring Eydie Gorme, one of his mother’s favorites.
“I do feel I’ve got to stay true to my roots and my culture and my parents,” says Campos. “But it’s all about music that I love, whether it’s a cumbia from Sonora Dinamita or a hard-core electronic tune from Underworld. I like it all.”